Monday, March 4, 2019

Winter Pasta Salad with Roast Chicken, Carrots & Carrot Top Pesto

Occasionally, in the depths of winter, I teach a salad class.  I know that salad is more of a spring or summer topic, but I find that in the winter—despite the fact that we generally want hearty braises, soups, stews and casseroles—there is a genuine craving for things that are fresh and raw.  A salad is the obvious way to satisfy this craving and there are a surprising number of winter ingredients that can easily fill this niche:  kale, chicories (Belgian endive, frisée, radicchio, and escarole), grated/julienned root vegetables (like carrots, celeriac and beets), cabbages of all kinds…as well as apples, pears and the wide variety of citrus fruits that flood the market every winter.  The aim of the class is to encourage people to think about ways to create fresh, seasonal, winter salads.

But of course “salads” can also be hearty and filling.  I think of roasted vegetable platters, grain salads, barely wilted greens that are doused in vinegar to give them a salad like feel, shell bean salads and pasta salads.  Like salads in general, the latter category is also something that comes to mind mostly in relation to summer.  But a bowl of room temperature pasta, tossed with a savory dressing and roasted or blanched winter vegetables, can be every bit as much of a salad as the summer versions.

For years I taught a pasta salad that included a walnut-parsley pesto and roasted carrots and cauliflower.  It was a fine dish…but it was best when freshly made.  The roasted cauliflower didn’t really hold very well in the fridge.  I really wanted the pasta salad that I did for the class to be one that could hold overnight (or even longer) in the fridge.  So this year, as I was getting ready to teach the class, I decided to look around at what other cooks and chefs were creating with pasta and pesto during the winter months. 

Although I was looking for pesto, I was intrigued by and stopped to take a more in depth look at Deb Perelman’s Pasta salad with roasted carrots and sunflower seed dressing.  I discovered that the sunflower seed dressing was actually a carrot-top pesto!  Since my salad already included carrots, I thought this was perfect.  For my improved winter pasta salad, I jettisoned the roasted cauliflower in my old recipe in favor of shredded roast chicken and decided to use the carrot top pesto that I make with pistachios instead of Perelman’s sunflower seed version. 

I loved the way this salad turned out.  It is balanced and savory…and satisfying without making you feel stuffed (or like you need a long winter’s nap).  Best of all, like all good pasta salads, it is even better the next day.

Winter Pasta Salad with Roasted Chicken, Carrots & Carrot Top Pesto

Carrot Top Pesto:
2 c. (2 oz.) lightly packed carrot tops (Before measuring the carrot tops, trim the feathery fronds away from the thick, ropey stems.  Discard the stems and use the tops only.)
a handful (1 oz.) of arugula
1/2 c. shelled pistachios, lightly toasted
1/2 to 3/4 t. kosher salt
1 large clove of garlic, peeled and smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
2/3 c. olive more if needed to get preferred consistency
1/3 c. (1 oz.) finely grated Parmesan

Place the carrot tops, arugula, pistachios, garlic and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in the food processor and process until everything is finely and uniformly chopped.  With the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil.  Scrape down the sides.  Add the Parmesan and pulse to combine.  Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and lemon juice if necessary.  If the pesto seems too tight, drizzle in a bit more oil.  Store in the refrigerator in a jar with a tight fitting lid and filmed with oil.  Makes 1 1/4 cups pesto.  

1 large (about 12 oz.) split chicken breast
olive oil
Salt & Pepper to taste
2 lb. carrots, topped, tailed and peeled
3/4 lb. gemelli or penne pasta
3/4 c. (200g.) carrot top pesto (about 2/3 of the recipe)
1 T. lemon juice (or to taste)
2 handfuls (about 2 oz.) arugula
Grated Parmesan

Preheat the oven to 475°.

Rub the chicken with a light coating of olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.  Place the chicken in a baking dish and place in the  oven, roasting until the skin is crisp and golden and an instant read thermometer inserted in the thickest portion reads 150° to 155°—about 25 to 30 minutes.  Remove the chicken from the oven and let sit until cool enough to handle.  Deglaze the baking pan with a couple of tablespoons of water.  Set aside.  When the chicken has cooled, remove the skin and bones and discard.  Shred the meat into long strips about 1/2-inch wide.  You should have about 2 cups shredded chicken.

If you can find them, tri-color carrots are beautiful in this dish.
If carrots are fatter than 3/4-inch in diameter, halve or quarter lengthwise.  Cut the carrots in scant 1/2-inch slices on a diagonal (so that they are roughly the length of the pasta).  Place the carrots in a large bowl.  Season to taste with salt & pepper.  Add enough olive oil to lightly coat the carrots (about 2 T.).  Toss to coat, and spread on a rimmed baking sheet.  Roast in a 475° oven until tender and caramelized/charred in spots, stirring once—about 20 minutes.  Set the vegetables aside until ready to assemble the salad.

Cook the pasta in 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water seasoned with 2 T. salt.  Stir occasionally and cook until the pasta is just al dente.  Drain, reserving some of the pasta cooking water.  Spread the pasta on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with a tablespoon or so of olive oil.  Set aside until ready to assemble the salad.

To assemble the salad, place the carrots, chicken and pasta in a large bowl.  Toss to combine.  Place the pesto in a small bowl and thin with 3 or 4 T. of the chicken pan deglazings and pasta water.  Pour over the pasta salad and toss the pasta salad until all the ingredients are evenly dressed with the pesto sauce.  

If the pasta salad seems "tight" add more pasta water or olive oil.  Taste and correct the seasoning with the lemon juice, salt, pepper or more pesto.  Add the arugula and toss again.  Serve at room temperature, garnished with Parmesan.

Serves 4 to 6.

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